Submarine

Submarine (2010)
NZ International Film Festival

A coming-of-age film which ought to be mawkish and clichéd, but pulls it off by employing doughy teenage leads who are worlds away from Beverly Hills 90210, and employing many wry cinematic devices, like a Wes Anderson or Jared & Jerusha Hess film, except far less irritating.

Although set in Swansea in the 1980s there’s a non-specific atmosphere to this film – without the VHS tapes it could have been set anytime in the 20th century. Swansea may not have changed that much since WWII  – there’s many unlovely scenes set on ruined industrial estates and institutions, and most of the daytime scenes have a grey overcast pallor, with only brief bursts of illumination from fireworks, the heroine’s red coat, and the sun setting over a deserted beach.

The hero of the film, young Oliver Tate, is a slightly pop-eyed dufflecoat wearer with zero social skills (as deluded as Rushmore’s Max Fischer but without the ambition) who half-heartedly joins in the constant petty bullying at his grim school to avoid becoming a target himself. He’s besotted by the scathing page-cut Jordana, and once his interest is reciprocated (actress Yasmin Paige’s face speaks volumes with a smirk) he loads her up with copies of The Catcher in the Rye and King Lear and takes her to arthouse flicks so they’ll develop mutual interests. Yes, he’s that kind of boyfriend.

His parent’s marriage is disintegrating because of his father’s depression (a lined Noah Taylor, looking far older than 39) and his prim mother’s infatuation with their new neighbour, an ex-boyfriend who has become a ridiculous New Age guru. Everyone in this family is desperately repressed, and when Jordana invite him to an early Christmas dinner with her family, and her gruff father breaks down (her mother is about to have an operation to treat her cancer and may only have a fortnight to live) Oliver is so shocked he distances himself entirely from her just as she needs him the most.

Screenplay writer and director Richard Ayoade (after this and Bridesmaids, that new season of the The IT Crowd seems less and less likely) manages to create sympathy for a truly dismal bunch of people, especially the awful hero, who views himself a the saviour of all around him. In reality he’s caught between hamfistedly meddling with his parents’ relationship, and conducting his own as though he’s read about it in a book and he’s pretending it’s happening to someone else. Unsentimental, grim, yet funny.

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